We certainly have found that without the Children we have met in the orphanages our world would be incomplete
Liam O’Meara – Nuclear Families (2006)
Pilgrimage For My Soul
I firmly believe that there are no ordinary moments. Whilst we often fail to see this in our normal everyday lives, a trip to Gorodishche is what is needed to remind me of this fact. Each minute of each hour on every day is truly extraordinary. I’m visiting for the third time in twelve months and my fourth trip is already scheduled and awaiting final planning tweaks – I have fallen truly in love with this place, and its people, it has become a Pilgrimage For My Soul. The physical location and the complicated journey have simply become a place of excitement and anticipation, weeks before my visit I begin to wonder what I will see and what extraordinary times I will have in a place where simplicity and unconditional love truly do exist.
We are (again) a group of seven travellers. This is the third time that I will be the lone man in a group of volunteers, the team hailing from Clare, Cork, and Mayo (yes, Julie you are now officially a Clare girl!). With one volunteer already in Minsk (Ruth is now a local having already spent five weeks at different location in Belarus), we are firstly brought together in London before finally becoming the full team in Minsk. A close encounter with security in London (I was innocent, I swear), and all is set for Gorodishche – July 2018. For Joanne and I this will our second visit of the year, a third visit in December will make it one hell of a year for us and our special ones in Gorodishche. In keeping with extraordinary moments - we will be in the Orphanage for Tanya’s eighteenth birthday; please God.
The group is similar to that which spent time in the orphanage in July 2017. Rosie, Ruth, Joanne, Julie, and Rosie eile have met infrequently since our visit last year, so this is a wonderful reunion. We are joined by two new members, both of whom have spent time in the orphanage in the past. Lisa appears to be a real veteran and knows all the groups and many of the names of our friends in Gorodishche, her mother has been going for many years and Lisa joined her on a number of visits. She has just finished her leaving cert and has decided that a trip to the orphanage is going to be her “Santa Ponsa” celebration (my middle fella has decided that Santa Ponsa is Santa Ponsa and he has gone there as we head to Belarus – we’re not worried or stressed!). Leah is the fresh-faced member of the group. Although a little older than Lisa, we get our first real laugh in London as the waitress (subsequently mortified) offers Leah the children’s menu. But don’t be fooled by her innocent looks, in a moment of stress (we were both tired, hungry, and emotional) she offers the friendly words “come here and I’ll fight ya” on day two of the trip – I wasn’t expecting that. Spoken in a lilting Cork brogue, I’m not in the least bit scared. With Ruth, Tamara, and Iryna meeting us in Minsk, it’s time to hit the road. There is dancing, singing, hugging, kissing, and loving to be done. Didn’t I tell you there would be no ordinary moments!
Everyone Has Purpose
We’re back in the penthouse apartments for this trip. The accommodation that the Irish use would likely be condemned if it were at home. There are holes in the walls, cracks and opening in the windows, ceilings that see through to the roof, and parts of the roof that are exposed to the elements. But it is now home for the week and we busy ourselves with bed making and rearranging the furniture (feels exactly like home as Joanne looks to give the place a make-over, deckchairs on the titanic comes to mind). Early mornings on the steps of the penthouse are magical. The sounds and the sights of the countryside are interrupted every morning by our friend Slav. Slav is a tall and strong lad, sporting a green Carlsberg t-shirt for the first five days of our visit (we wonder if he might sleep in it too!). He is initially very standoffish and appears to dart in and out of sight. As time wears on, he becomes more familiar with us and even rambles in to the hallway to pick up the guitar and serenade us with his random strumming.
Early morning sights and sounds
Slav "the unloader"
Julie, Rosie and I observe; yes, we are the early birds again, that Slav has a very important job and that is how we get to see him so often. The kitchens for the orphanage are directly across from the Irish accommodation and Slav needs to be close by as he is part of the small team that loads and unloads the trucks as they collect and deliver waste and produce from the kitchen. His enthusiasm (and comfort around us) is demonstrated as he does cartwheels and claps all the way down the hill to his work. He is enjoying every aspect of life in the orphanage, albeit in a very simple way.
But what he does is important, and we observe teams of residents, each with their specific chores. From kitchen porter (that’s Slav’s new job title) to farm boys, group minders, bakers, accountants (that’s a fancy title for Natasha who walks around all day with a notebook in her hand), and everything in between. Everyone who has a job to do seems to do it with such enthusiasm and I get to thinking – isn’t this giving them purpose as well as meaning. In a day that might be spent looking at the four walls (more on this later), there are teams engaged in ensuring that the place is well kept and that they are actively engaged, physically mostly! One of the busy teams we observe, outside the main building, is engaged on keeping the footpath clean and tidy. An industrious team are using blunt kitchen knives to clear weeds from the pathway – I’m glad Leah is not nearby given the threat that I had to fight her the previous night! The place looks well in the Belarussian sunshine, the grass is lush and green, and the flowers are blooming – I think “they must get some rain here” not realising that rain was not the word for what we were to witness later in the week
Rosa - Mama To All
Mama Rosa is truly the mama of the group. Rosie is the longest serving volunteer in Gorodishche and has travelled to the orphanage more often than all of this group put together. As well as leading the group, Rosie is a key part of the core group that keeps BCP going – thank God for her and those people that give so much to the resident of the orphanages; and to the volunteers that they lead and support on their visits.
Now I have a confession to make! I think I might be partly responsible (to blame) for the circumstances that have brought Rosie to BCP. Allow me to divulge.
Many years ago, how long exactly will remain a secret to preserve the illusion that we are really younger than reality would have it. On a visit to Dublin, a friend and I called to visit a group of girls that were living on Leinster Road – nurses from down the country. The specific lady we called to see was out, but two crafty young ladies offered us a cuppa and spent some time tricking us in to thinking that we were chatting them up. Turns out that Rosie knew someone that I would have known, and she used this to catch me off guard – what the heck is going on here, time to get out! We kept in touch with the two girls and some time later I introduced my friend, Bruno, to Rosie. The rest (including courtship, marriage, moving to Shannon, and Ruth) is, as they say, history.
Rosie knows everyone in the orphanage; their likes, their dislikes, their idiosyncrasies, and the mamas (these can be the most special group in some cases). She works with everyone to understand how BCP might best serve the orphanage, and this doesn’t just happen when Rosie is “on the road”, she has lists and details that she has meticulously kept over the years, tracking some of her favourites from cots (baby) to independents (Group 8).
On our week in Gorodishche we got to celebrate Mama Rosa’s birthday, something that Rosie has done in Gorodishche for many years – a further testament to her dedication (and Bruno’s unconditional support) to BCP and the children and young adults of Gorodishche.
Sank You Mama Rosa.
Dancing like no one is looking!
Mama Rosa and some babies
Tanya - all grown up
Another Singer In The Family
Our Tanya (that’s how they might say it in Northern Ireland) has gone from a teenager to a woman in the past year and she is positively glowing. The love from her towards her Irish mammy (reciprocated I might add) is something worth watching. Joanne and I had visited in March and met a different lady than we had seen in July last year. A couple of months later we got several photographs from Ruth (who was in Belarus) and what we saw was fantastic. Tanya is no longer our baby girl! And who could have known that she would be the singer?
I suspect that the clever and pretty ones in the orphanage have many Irish mama’s, their survival technique will be to be the “special one” to as many as they can – how else can you get through any year in Gorodishche? We know that Michelle was Tanya’s mama in the past, and there are some beautiful photographs from that time. Tanya deserves as many mama’s as she can weave in to her web, but I have no doubt that there is only one extra special mama.
Tanya is part of a lovely group of girls in Group Four – the terrible twins (typically Irish, there are three of them). Tanya, Vaselina, and Lida have been best friends for many years and rely on each other in times when we are long gone from Gorodishche. Each has their own distinct characteristics and you see the best of all when the three girls are together. There is supersensitive and talkative (Tanya), super-bright and deep (Vaselina) and superhelpful and supportive (Lida). They are our Spice Girls in Belarus, with others vying for a place in the special group (Roslana, Ala, and Dasha to mention just a few).
A day out with the group from 4
Time spent in this group is very special, both Joanne and I have found our special ones here and we have a great support to the girls in Kyriel (more about him later). This is still where I wish I could understand what is being said, the girls are so talkative and animated – I’m sure there are great stories being told!
Parting is always so difficult, especially in this group. Joanne leaves relatively quickly, hoping that this will make it easier for all. I stay to explain that we will be back soon, the room is in floods of tears (and echos of “ya ochen' lyublyu”) – this is a tough farewell.
Happy Ever After?
My visit last year was full of highs and lows, I guess that everyone that goes to Belarus for the first time will experience these extremes (and I can testify that these feelings are not reserved for firsttime visitors). The positive news that Sergei was leaving to live a truly independent life was such fantastic news. But is there such a thing as happy ever after?
Sergei returned to meet us in Gorodishche, he is still doing his apprenticeship, but all is not going according to plan. He looked in great health and, unlike every other young man in Gorodishche, was not wearing a GAA jersey! but he has concerns about completing his period as a true independent and what might lie ahead for him. The system is not necessarily designed to ensure that people like Sergei will be setup for success. He tells of family issues that may come back to haunt him (he will be sent back to his family town at the end of the apprenticeship). His father is in prison and other family members that will not necessarily be role models/supportive, he is concerned. It’s clear from his body language (Iryna translates on his behalf) that he is not in a great place. It’s that system that keeps coming back – it appears to be throwing obstacles in the way of the ones that really need it most – but is it any different here in Ireland I wonder?
A pensive Sergei
I was determined to “go native” this year in Belarus and have decided to pack no food – a brave fool! I was worried about the quality of what might grow locally before I first visited, what was the lasting impact in the land of the beast that was Chernobyl? Three trips later I’ve become either brave or reckless, I am going to eat only local produce. We are blessed that there are many local food producers and we are supplied with eggs, potatoes, marrows, spring onions, and herbs from Tamara and Veronika. The cost – almost free; it feels wrong to pay the prices that are asked – so we don’t. These are the basic ingredients, but it is known that sauces are bland by Irish standards (oh how hooked we’ve become on salt and other additives that hide the real taste of the foods we eat). We add other local products (cheese, tomatoes, peppers, etc.) to the mix and hey presto – I’m now going native. I have no complaints, I choose not to have cuppa soups, noodles, pasta, and all is good. But I like fish and decide that I will have a “local” delicacy – pickled herring. Should have checked the packaging (which is in Russian), I’m now going fully local with a side of Norwegian herring – next time!
Not quite a local fish!
Every day should be a school day – when we stop learning; we stop! With Iryna we learn so much, it’s not a case of every day being an education but every meeting with her is such an enlightening experience. Her deep knowledge of every person in the orphanage is astonishing, and her patient retelling of stories is a joy to behold.
She is a great storyteller, more Irish that she thinks; methinks. On an afternoon of complete madness in the hall, we regrouped afterwards to catch our breath and to plan our next moments of joy or insanity – I have no idea where her energy comes from. She, inadvertently, became to centre of the universe. Everyone was fixated on her tales of people, places, events; life. “You see girls”. I’m so glad that I captured that moment of storytelling and engrossment.
Joanne and I had an opportunity, at the end of the week, to have dinner with this magic lady. We were returning to Ireland and spend the evening in Minsk, an opportunity for a shower – a trip to a restaurant – Gorodishche is fantastic but the hot showers in Minsk are fantasticer! We went to a nice restaurant and had great food, a drink, and marvellous conversation. We planned our next trip, Iryna so looks forward (for herself but most especially for the kids) on the Irish visits. As luck would have it, our planned visit in December also coincides with Iryna’s birthday, we will make sure she is spoiled.
One can never fail to be amazed by what you experience in Gorodishche. I spoke of chores and giving people purpose earlier. But it’s not all work and no fun in the orphanage for the residents. I had heard of the “theatre” but had only ever seen the performers in the sports hall. I had no expectation that there could be such an impressive (purple velvet seated) venue here. But oh no, this place just keeps on giving! We are invited to the afternoon performance of a show that has been competing at regional level recently. What an amazing event; the room, the costumes, the performers, and that flag dance. It is as emotional as it is impressive, this is a bunch of entertainers that are having as much fun on stage as we, their audience, are having in their theatre.
But the real heart-tugger is saved to nearly last, Tanya gives us a truly marvellous rendition of a beautiful song - Куда уходит детство (Where Childhood Goes). Mama Joanne struggles to watch through the floods of tears but no problem I have it covered – I’m recording the whole thing on my phone. What The ….! My camera app crashes and the video is gone – quick try to get the end. I managed to get the last verse and chorus and Tanya motioning to Joanne to join her on the stage. Despite me, the talent surely runs deep in the O’Sullivan family. Central to all of the music and dramatics that we have seen so regularly is a lady that we’ve seen many times and with whom we have developed a new bond. Tatyana must spend hours teaching the steps and preparing the music, the results are well worth the effort and one final act from her is to provide harmony accompaniment for Kyriel (be patient – his story is coming soon!)
Did I mention the flag dance? Absolutely incredible, the physical/mental challenges facing the group are nowhere to be seen. This is as good a performance of a complex piece of movement that you are ever likely to see. And to weave them in the Belarussian colours, very clever indeed.
Beyond extraordinary moments, there are a small few gems that I call magic moments. Whether you simply witness these moments or are part of them (the latter being the preference of course), you cannot fail to be deeply moved. I’m glad to report that I was part of one of the magical moments in witnessing Tanya in the theatre. She was as proud as punch to be able to show off to her mama and papa and we couldn’t have been prouder.
There are a few moments that are especially worthy of mention here. Moments where I believe that fellow volunteers were experiencing the best that Gorodishche has to offer (and more).
Lost in each others company
I spoke of Masha in both of my previous diaries, I had a very special connection with her on my visits. There’s something about her that is both intriguing and desperately sad. She chooses to sit alone, on this visit she was in the middle of the floor sitting on a blanket and rocking to and fro. She has a distant, forlorn, look about her and she’s is so small that you really just want to pick her up and cuddle her tight. But that not what she wants, she’s not the cuddling type. After entering the room, I was engaged with many of the more social and active girls. Colouring, sitting and holding hands, taking photo’s (yes “photo” Vika is in this group). Lisa went to Masha and sat opposite her on the floor. She began to massage Masha’s hands and looked to engage her, taking time to wipe the dribbles that pour from her mouth. Lisa stayed with Masha for close to 90 minutes, both were deeply in each other’s worlds – lost! There was a clear connection and there was contentment on both sides of the moment. I know that this meant so much to the two girls – both are the same age (if you can believe that).
The next of my witnessed moments occurred with the cuddliest of the residents in the orphanage, Roslana. Joanne and I had gone over to see Tanya and Lida one evening. Lida was on her usual duties (she minds the kids in the toilet – not the nicest of roles) and there was a small group of the usual suspects in the room. Roslana was there in her wheelchair and Joanne noted that she was rocking herself back and forth, thumb in her mouth (as she does). Joanne was overcome with a deep sadness; the baby had learned how to rock herself to sleep.
Without hesitation (and before Roslana dropped off), Joanne picked her up and held her tightly, rocking with her as a mother might do to her little baby. Roslana fell in to a deep sleep, not alone in her wheelchair but in the loving and warm arms of a, for now, mammy.
Anyone know the rules?
A Lethal Sport
Who would have known that soccer could be a lethal sport? In the week that was to end with the World Cup Final, I decided that I would line out for Ireland in the challenge that is a regular occurrence on the pitch in Gorodishche. We had played on the Monday evening and the Wednesday game was underway with a smaller crowd in attendance – the weather was a little overcast. I was on and off the pitch, chatting with the boys who cannot play but want to be part of the action. When coming back on to the pitch I felt like I had been shot in the back of the leg or at least hit by a flying object. The boys had been playing with apples that had fallen from a tree on the far side of the pitch and I was sure that this had been used as a weapon to target Ireland’s lethal striker (I can dream can’t I!). I hit the deck greeted with howls of laughter from the side-line. Very funny I thought as I got back up. But guess what, I couldn’t stand on my right leg, maybe I have been shot!
Limping badly (allow me some poetic license here), I reached the side of the pitch and was getting abuse from the boys. They were calling out numbers to me and saying a word that I couldn’t understand. I eventually got the strength up to reach for my phone (remember, this is my story and I can tell it any way I want!) and Arstysom typed in the Russian of what they had been teasing me about – “103 Emergency” was what they had been calling. Seems like they thought that my serious injury was hilarious and that I should call the ambulance (103 being the equivalent of our 999). Ha ha, very funny! I was on crutches for the next number of days, how embarrassing. I go to Belarus to help those less able-bodied that me and end up hobbling around in crutches for the rest of the trip. Maybe I need to admit that I’m past it, the best years of my playing career are long behind me.
Need for cool water!
When It Rains!
We have been spoiled in Ireland with the weather this year, especially in Shannon where record books were being checked before we left. Gorodishche was relatively cool (oh how quickly we adjust to temperature in the high 20’s at home). We are promised reasonable weather for the week but there are question marks over Thursday, seems that there might be a big thunder storm. For those that have experienced storms in Belarus, this is not good news. Water has poured through the ceilings in the Penthouse and moving about in the fork lightening is not recommended – there’s a story of a tree (now a stump) outside the Penthouse that got a direct hit at some point in the past. Whether this is true or an urban myth, it’s another great story of the orphanage.
Thursday passes without any sign of really bad weather, it’s overcast but no sign of that storm. All is well until 1am, the rooms are alight, and the rumble rocks the place. I can hear the nervous laughter from out in the corridor, the young ones (Ruth, Lisa, and Leah) are still awake. We discover, the following morning, that Ruth was in the loo when the electricity went – hilarious I think (she doesn’t agree). The storm passes, and we are unaffected by weather for the rest of the visit, we have plenty of water (unlike those struggling with the drought back on the island of Ireland).
Amazing Young Man
Kyriel is an amazing young man (I told you I would get to him!). When you look at what life has dealt him you have to wonder how he can keep a, somewhat, bright side out. He’s intelligent beyond most of those in the orphanage. We’re told he has family but they are irregular visitors, Rosie eile and I are not in agreement on whether their visits are good or bad. Kyriel is a great help to those in his group, most especially in keeping their technology safe. I have brought a media player for Tanya to replace the one that she gave back to us earlier this year (bizarrely, it works in Ireland but not in Belarus). Kyriel takes the device from me and changes the language to Russian, without the use of his hands, he manages this with his nose. He beckons to me to follow him as he pushes his own wheelchair out to the hall. He signals up to the ceiling where I see a wifi controller. He again uses his nose to connect to the wifi and enter the password. Wait a minute! There’s wifi in the orphanage? He uses his translator software to get me to setup an account on the device so that they can load games and music. I’m struggling to do this when he nudges me to a message on his translator “change it to English, you’ll find it easier”. Oh dear, he’s right and assists me to get the device back to a language that I can understand before taking it back and moving it to double Dutch again. With his translator, Kyriel and I have conversations about lots of stuff – thank you technology (and education).
“Julie I love you” are the squeals of excitement from Andrei – feels like another magic moment is upon us. Andrei and Julie are each other’s special ones, he excitedly jumps about when she is nearby (actually he jumps about, a little, all of the time). It’s the last day for Joanne and I and we are with Julie to deliver the media player that Andrei has been anxiously awaiting. Julie is not sure that it’s the one he wants but his reaction tells another story. He is hyperventilating, bouncing, and grinning from ear-to-ear. Is he happy, oh yes, a media player with a camera, a speaker and headphones – Christmas has well and truly arrived. In his excitement he runs up the stairs towards his room – he knows where his room is and it is not up that stairs! We hear, from Ruth, that he is still squealing with joy some time later.
Happy is the word.
Music & О Я Я
There is one group that have a really tough existence (only one I hear you ask!). They have a very small day room and spend all of their time sitting looking at each other, mostly in total silence. This is a group that we really need to get out, short walks, time in the sun, dancing, anything but that room. I’ve brought the guitar this day, we plan a sing-song in the open air. And this group goes from The Sounds Of Silence to Dancing Queens (and Kings) in seconds. They don’t singalong, but they dance and play the guitar (albeit the air kind) with enthusiasm that you couldn’t have dreamed would exist when you meet them indoors. They are on fire, delighted that we took them out and that the guitar and music was on hand. There is a queue to hold and strum the guitar but the rocker in this group is Mischa, he is really part of the band and no one can tell him otherwise! I wanted to be a bit more organised this year with my music.
I wanted to be sure that we had material printed and ready for the events that might pop up. And all was well! We had opportunities with a number of the groups but the song that resonated most with everyone was Spancil Hill (oh ya ya). It was regularly heard around the orphanage, but nothing will surpass the performance in the sports hall. The chorus is very simple, three syllables. And what could be more perfect, it happens to be the phonetic sound of three letters in the Russian alphabet - О Я Я. We are celebrating three birthdays and we have a captive audience. There are many songs to be sung (led by Ruth and Joanne). But the song that brings the house down is simple; О Я Я, О Я Я, О Я Я, О Я Я
As my wife might say - fanbuckintastic
I’ve thought a bit about my third visit and what it means to me and where I am in my life. I’ve used some words very deliberately that I’ve researched to make sure I understand, I’d like to share these as I close out my memories of this trip.
Pilgrimage - a journey or long search made for exalted or sentimental reasons (Collins)
Soul - Your soul is the part of you that consists of your mind, character, thoughts, and feelings. Many people believe that your soul continues existing after your body is dead (Collins)
A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey into someone's own beliefs. (Wikipedia)
References to Ordinary Moments come from a favourite book of mine from Dan Millman (Way Of The Peaceful Warrior)
Magic moments, when two hearts are carin'
Magic moments, mem'ries we've been sharing
(thanks to Perry Como)
A Parting Thought
I would love to finish this piece on a high (or magic) moment, but this is real and the people we work with are even more real. I reserve the last word for Nastia. She has featured – front and centre – on each of my visits. Unfortunately, the story of this beautiful lady has gone from high to low. Nastia is solidly bed bound and feeds lying down, this is a far cry from the girl I met twelve months ago. I had noted her declining health in March, but this was another step in the wrong direction. She is pale and waxy; she still smiles but she is distant. It’s the off season for the teacher and she is not out in the classroom during this trip. I take her for a walk to the pool (don’t get carried away – it’s a blow-up kind full of brown water). I sing to her, but she is vacant. She asks for Joanne to do her hair, maybe she is not that bad after all.
I think of her as one of The Spice Girls in group four but she’s a long way from being as good as they are. I hope that she will rally and that she will be well when we next visit, but I fear that this is unlikely.
To Rosie, Joanne, Julie, Rosie eile, Lisa, Leah, and Ruth – Thank You (Большое спасибо)
There are so many more thanks, but I dare to start naming names and leaving someone out. But there is one that must be included: -
Thank you BCP and Gorodishche